Alastair Sim's Scrooge, and Apologies

I don't have a lot of Christmas traditions. Though watching holiday movies is kind of one. Because you know how movies and TV shows and books that you experienced when you were a child often continue to hold a magic over you even when you're older.

I don't have many of my Christian/Catholic beliefs left -- though I am partial still to "Blessed are the merciful" and "Blessed are the peacemakers," as well as "Blessed are they who don't torture" and "Blessed are they who don't ruin the financial system and bankrupt everybody." And "Blessed are they who don't tailgate."

I love living in my suburban/rural Pennsylvania, but sometimes when someone is tailgating me on the narrow country roads where deer pop out in front of you with no warning, I will sometimes swerve my car in an abrupt circle, forcing the car behind me to stop, and I will sometimes scream "Blessed are the meek!" as I smash their windshield with a sledge hammer. Just kidding, mostly.

I'm back. Sorry, I had to go lie down and do positive, forgiving visualizations.

Among the holiday movies I still like as an adult are White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (who's a special favorite of mine). And the sappy but kind of nice The Bishop's Wife with Loretta Young as the melancholy, ignored wife of minister David Niven, and with Cary Grant as the angel who comes to help them. Cary Grant is awfully dreamboat-ish as an angel but as with almost everything he did, he's also terrific.

And my favorite A Christmas Carol movie is the British 1951 version starring Alastair Sim.

Although it's often considered the best one by film historians, I realize it's also the first one I ever saw as a child.

I grew up in New Jersey, and we got all of New York City's channels. And, of course, there were only 7 channels at that point. (I feel like one of those older adults who used to say disapprovingly "I had to walk 4 miles to school" and then glower.)

And WOR Channel 9 was the one I watched, especially for Million Dollar Movie, which in the mid 50s through early 60s ran the same movie every day for a full week. And you know how much children like to read their favorite story over and over. Well with this schedule you could see the chosen movie once a day Monday through Friday, and on the weekend see it 6 more times. I didn't really ever see a movie all 11 times... but I saw it two or three or maybe four times.

Million Dollar Movie showed films from the 30s and 40s, so I grew up knowing my parents' popular culture more than I came to know my own. I saw the Astaire-Rodgers movies. I saw Dance, Girl, Dance with good girl Maureen O'Hara and sassy girl Lucille Ball. I saw Since You Went Away with sensitive Jennifer Jones loving and losing a soldier in wartime. I saw my mother's favorite actress Jean Arthur in The Devil and Miss Jones, as mogul Charles Coburn learned how the working class lived by taking a job in his own department store. (This last was a charming, pro-union romantic comedy from 1941. The mogul learns to treat his employees better. Ah, I liked those days.)

I don't remember how old I was when Million Dollar Movie ran the Alastair Sims' version of A Christmas Carol. But it was the first version I saw, and it told the story really well; and Sim was just wonderful in the role.

Unlike Reginald Owen in the 1938 Hollywood version, who came across as a stock mean person and then later as an abrupt and still stock happy person, Sim was psychologically believable as the bitter miser. It's hard to say "bah, humbug" and make it seem like something you're actually saying.

And when after his long night of the soul, Scrooge awakes with an open heart instead of a closed one, Sim's comic abilities kick in. Sure, he's believable in his change of heart, but he's also giddy in his new found joy, and keeps bursting into laughter.

And when he raises his housekeeper's salary and dances in a circle with her, she screams in terror, sure he's ready for the nuthouse; and this makes him laugh all the more. Sometimes in this section he turns introspective for a moment and mutters darkly, "I don't deserve such happiness" but then he re-bursts into peals of delighted laughter all over again.

My favorite moment in the movie turns out not to be in the Dickens story, and it's in the "reformed Scrooge" section.

I never read the Dickens story until 2001 when I was commissioned to write a comic "antidote" to sentimental Christmas fare. I wasn't sure what to do until I had an impulse to take the long-suffering minor character of Mrs. Bob Cratchit and turn her into an angry, "had-it-up-to-here" lady, furious with her husband's mildness and sick to death of Tiny Tim's insistent pathos.

The finished play became Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge, and in my version Mrs. Cratchit keeps running off to the Pub to get drunk and then jump off London Bridge; though Scrooge's Ghost keeps stopping her. But Scrooge doesn't learn his lessons because he so admires Mrs. Cratchit's nastiness; and they fall in love, crass and happy to be wealthy, and the Ghost tries to find the moral of the story, and can't.

But I figured I should read the real story to see if I could get any extra inspiration for my version.

I thought the Dickens story was wonderful, but oddly the various movie versions included most of it pretty accurately. It is a long short story, not a novel; and so there was not that much material to leave out actually.

But there's this moment in the Alastair Sims' version that always moved me, and it's in the "transformed" section, after he's given his housekeeper the raise, and after he's sent an enormous turkey anonymously to the semi-starving Cratchit family. It happens when he decides to go to his nephew's house for Christmas dinner, after years of grouchily refusing. (He was angry his nephew chose a "penniless" wife, and he has disowned both of them. I don't think he's even met the wife.)

And when he arrives at their house, and is among their other guests, he looks at his nephew's wife and he apologizes to her.

Now why do I find that apology so moving?

In the movie and story, we do learn that Scrooge as a young man deeply loved his sister Fan. And in the Ghost of Christmas Past section we learn that Fan had rescued her brother from a harsh boarding school and gotten him welcomed home again; and that she and Scrooge were very close. However, the beloved Fan marries and then dies in childbirth; and from that day on, Scrooge can barely look at the nephew Fred (his sister's child), let alone go to his house for dinner. And Fred's own marriage only reminds him of Fan's marriage which led to her death.

Now I often love the pieces I parody, and this is true with A Christmas Carol. And Dickens' skill with the three Ghosts really gets us to the place where we believe in the possibility of Scrooge becoming an open-hearted person rather than the dark shut-down person he grew into.

And in the arc of the story, the nephew and his wife are quite minor. And we barely know who the wife is, though she's pleasingly cast.

I credit Sim's simple delivery of the screenwriter Noel Langley's disarming and brief speech of capitulation -- I've been wrong all these years, and I'm sorry.

I guess part of my reaction is that in my family -- where alcoholism and complicated psychology made for many fights -- none of the arguments ever got resolved. Though my parents fought too, it was actually my mother's extended family who caused the most upset. And either people who were furious would insist they weren't. Or some would say, "I forgive you, but..." and then what followed the "but" was the reminder of all the things they were mad at. (These arguments weren't even directed at me; I was witness to them. Made me grow up thinking no one could ever solve anything.)

So I think seeing Scrooge suddenly re-see all his positions and beliefs, and see they were wrong; and then so gently and generously say "I'm sorry" just touches some deep wish within me.

Of course in the Scrooge story, Scrooge has been "in the wrong," and the nephew and the wife haven't done anything to be punished for. And in life it's usually more complex than that.

It's easier to find nice apologies and resolution of differences in literature and movies than in life. But blessed are the peacemakers, eh? If only we can figure out how to make peace.

(Sorry. I have this earnest side that won't shut up. Happy holidays... )